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Assuming a random distribution of people suddenly vanish (or die from some form of disease, are abducted by aliens, or similarly incapacitated), how high would the % have to be to disable the power grid? (for a period of lets say longer than 1 month)

everyone from the security guard at the desk, to the computer maintenance team, to the people actually working the power plant would have an equal chance of disappearing/ being unable to perform their duty

To be clear, I am asking about the required death toll (or similar) prior to any secondary deaths caused by loss of electricity

And lets add some assumptions:

  • current tech level of the world is on par with the present-day
  • occurs in "developed" nation (or world-wide, but looking for effect/ratio needed for it to cause problems in developed countries)
  • This was a sudden catastrophe, i.e. no preparations were made, no-one received extra training or passwords or keys
  • People are gone/incapacitated, but the infrastructure itself is unaffected (except for the soon-to-be neglect)
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    $\begingroup$ Would whatever event taking place also damage the power grid in some way? $\endgroup$ – slebetman Apr 15 '15 at 4:01
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think you can give a simple answer to this, since many of the jobs needed to keep the grid functioning require pretty specialized training. Joe Average trying to work on a high-voltage transmission line is going to be a crispy critter in short order. So if your random process happens to vanish a bunch of people with critical skills, it'd be a small fraction. If it misses many of those, it'd be a large number. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Apr 15 '15 at 4:22
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf assuming it's a random distribution, i.e. if 1% of the population works in power lines, then x% of those would be gone @ slebetman no, assume that the people are simply gone or incapacitated, but no physical damage is done (other than that caused by lack of maintenance due to missing people) $\endgroup$ – user2813274 Apr 15 '15 at 4:42
  • $\begingroup$ As long as company is making money. $\endgroup$ – user6760 Apr 15 '15 at 4:46
  • $\begingroup$ @user6760 I would imagine they would make money if they could generate and deliver the electricity $\endgroup$ – user2813274 Apr 15 '15 at 4:47
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There's a lot of possible approaches to this answer, especially given cross training. Power has a Dune-esque "the Spice must flow" attitude. We find ways to keep the power going.

However, there is a class of individuals that I think may be hard enough to replace that they could take the things down: operators.

When I was given a tour of a power plant, they explained that each and every generator has its own little quirks. The operator's job is literally to sit there watching a computer screen full of data and try to ensure the generator doesn't enter a mode that damages itself. They are held in such high regard that they literally design their own GUI to monitor things. Each operator has a different GUI because they've learned to handle situations in a slightly different way.

If you lost enough of these, it might be extremely difficult to replace their unique skillset, causing generators to fail much more rapidly. That is a very expensive proposition that might be enough to put the lights out.

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    $\begingroup$ There are also system operators: the grid itself has to be fairly carefully balanced so that supply matches demand (which continuously varies in time & space) so that nothing overloads (or underloads), which can bring down an entire grid and cause a blackout. This link en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_2003 has a good overview. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Apr 17 '15 at 19:41
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Well this is a pretty wide answer. For it not only depends on the people running the plant, it also depends on the transportation system bringing in the fuel (such as coal) AND everyone who is left still feeling it's worth continuing.

My brother in law works at a power plant that burns coal to produce electricity. The plants sound fairly 'easy' to run and all the jobs have several backups. The biggest problem they have is when the railroad doesn't deliver coal on time. One of their biggest complaints is the railroad will deliver coal in batches where they need to store it, then let it run down to where they are almost out. Last winter the railroad was shipping so much oil from the Dakota's that they almost ran out.

So as long as it has fuel, a coal plant could run for quite a while. The bigger question is if there was a significant catastrophe, would people go back to work? At least for a while? Or would they all stay home and try to 'protect' what they have left?

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There are two components to consider here...first is your power generation.

I have to throw the assumption out there that power consumption is going to decrease at a similar rate as our die off...a 90% population die off is also going to come with a sharp drop in our power consumption. A few sources:

Coal - coal power generation doesn't just need a few highly skilled operators to maintain...it also requires a distribution system to get the coal to the plant and a mining system to get the coal from the ground. About 40% of our power comes from coal...but if the population has died off so significantly, do we really need to depend on this?

Natural gas - same as coal really, you need to get the gas out of the ground and into the power station. about 25% of our power is derived from natural gas and once again fits into the 'if were not using that much power, do we really need to maintain this?' category.

Nuclear - The skill and knowledge level to build and maintain these, as well as properly mine and refine uranium makes nuclear rather difficult to maintain as well.

Renewable - Hydro, wind, and solar generation make up around 10% of our generation and have no inputs that we need to refine and bring to the generation site, nor is it that manpower intensive to maintain (solar panel creation might not be so).

Almost a backwards answer to your question...but I see a 50% drop in our population as an immediate threat to our power generation, and in a few methods...if production of coal drops with our population, or production of natural gas...then we get into issues. If our distribution system that brings the coal and gas to the power plants drops, then we get into issues as well. However is so many of us die off that we no longer have the need for 90% of our power generation, then we find ourselves capable of meeting our energy needs.

Part 2 is the power lines and distribution grid. This is a bit more abstract as it's very often extreme events (snow storms) that cause issues here, but there is a large amount of maintainence required here just to keep the power flowing. It's a risky job, but the education level here isn't quite what you need compared to operators. Distribution is pretty much hub and spoke...your power generation goes to a central facility that connects to a variety of substations and then down from there. I actually think this becomes the same situation as above...if our population drops low enough that the population has to relocate to a concentrated area, then we'll be fine...you only need to maintain the part of the grid you us after all. However, if our population dropped but not enough to warrent a mass relocation of people to a more central location, then we are in the situation where there might not be enough people to fully maintain a sprawled distribution system.

Not sure I expected this conclusion when writing this answer...but it would appear there is a couple thresholds that can be crossed. The first threshold is when we are no longer capable of maintaining our current usage needs through our existing methods of energy production. But there also appears to be a second threshold where our population has dropped low enough that we can depend on the less intensive power generation techniques to meet our demands. I'd say a 50% population drop will get us in trouble...by about 90% we start to reach a critical point where our power generation can easily be handled by less intensive methods.

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Pretty broad, so I'll try to contribute. This is pure speculation for a broad question.

Solar/Wind - This requires a low number of maintenance labor on production and distribution. The number of people who can do this job is a very, very low proportion of the world's population, I'd say 1:10,000 people can figure out how to do this job.

Water - This requires a relatively low number, but there are more people, and higher skillsets, so let's say 1:100,000 people can figure out how to do this job.

Oil/Gas/Coal - This, as stated, requires a very high skillset. Only 1:1,000,000 people can do this job.

How that translates to proportion is up to you, but I'd worry about getting electricity if you go with a 95% death rate. In Portland, I get all my power from wind, but now there's only about fifty thousand people left in the area, so it's pretty likely none of us know how to maintain wind generators.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think your 1:1'000'000 on oil/gas/coal is overstated...there are more than 1000 people on the north american continent capable in this domain. $\endgroup$ – Twelfth Apr 17 '15 at 22:18
  • $\begingroup$ This is the (highly speculative) ratio that you will get the person who works directly on a very specific part of the operation of an oil/gas/coal plant. Huuuge guess to try to help get to a highly conceptual ratio. $\endgroup$ – Mikey Apr 17 '15 at 22:21

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